“Un Fuerte Abrazo” by Ayling Dominguez


I held it in ‘til my eyes watered. It felt like someone was breakdancing in my throat. Gravity slapped me around a little, called me a bitch and pulled that tear right out of my duct, sideways towards the pillowcase.

“Fuck,” I thought. “I did it again. Made myself smaller.” I held it in because I thought he was already fast asleep and didn’t want to risk waking him. I care for him, so shouldn’t it be alright that I want him to feel comfortable in my bed? So much so that he never wants to leave? That maybe, just maybe, he’d realize he loves me.

And so, I thought, I shall not cough. Instead, I shall stroke his arm, run my fingers through his hair, trace the muscles on his beautiful, bare, brown back. “It’s okay,” I reassured both myself and my mother nestled somewhere in the furthest recesses of my mind. He must be able to sense the power in my independence translated into self-rule as I lay quietly, queen-like, unmoving. If not, he knows it from when he saw that I wasn’t afraid to eat more than him. Waste perfectly good mofongo and maduros just to appear thin? ‘Tuh, if I’m going to sin, it’ll be a better one than that.

“You’re not that big on cuddling, huh?” Damn, did I stray too far the other way now?

There I go, imagining that there has to be a tightrope I’m balancing on, teetering above over-being on the one hand and under-expressing on the other.

Other women fly. I’ve read about their confident and never-doubting-themselves lives. What I wouldn’t give to live like that. I tell myself I’m getting there. Is there an AA group for those who are too quick to love? For those who can’t picture themselves getting to know someone and baring their souls if not with the intention of forever? For those who talk big game and sing loudly and decidedly to Meg’s “Hot Girl Summer,” “Money Good,” Lizzo’s “Good as Hell,” and Kehlani’s “Too Much,” but still find themselves losing themselves finding excuses for inadequate partners, settling for less than time and again.

Asking for a friend. The friend being me, of course. At least that’s what I tell myself. I want to believe I’m treating Me right. Not compromising or breaking my back in search of requital. My best friend tells me to stop doubting myself and thinking he is out of my league, I am beautiful. More than that I am a Matatana, a Diabla, a Tiguerasa; a woman who shuts shit down just as much as she is able to start your heart up with her passion, creativity, sense of humor, large bright eyes, and clever mind. I am thoughtful, she says with a positive tone, but which I ponder whether if to my detriment.

Papi always said que yo no era fácil, que podría hasta tumbar gobiernos. That I could topple whole governments. I know que mis mujeres crave revolution, but do our men?

“My resolution this year is to stop overthinking,” he shares. They’ll never know how unequal the burden of reflection and analysis of every little detail—each smallest action—is. Ay if Mami knew I spent more than a split second mortificada por un hombre, she’d send a chancleta flying across Third Avenue Bridge all the way from her place in Mott Haven to mine in West Harlem. I’m sorry, Mami. I just can’t help thinking que me va dejar. That I won’t be enough. When I told Papi that my new love interest was Dominican and Puerto Rican he raised his brows to the heavens and silbó. “Bueeeeeno, mija.

“When you have those negative thoughts, that you are either not enough or too much, stop them in their tracks,” my best friend insists more so than gently imparts. She’s going to therapy now. Something I should start, too, but never find the time nor the resources to. But, because we turn to each other for support, we uplift within and succor among us when the general public and world at large cares not for, I write to share these tips and tricks to continue at all times (or nearly all, since we can also get behind the need for a good cry) feeling like a badass bitch.

Unlike a steaming bowl of pozolecaldo de res, creamy mac ‘n cheese, or a juicy plate of collard greens, those negative thoughts do not feed you nor your soul. Let them rest six feet under. Not your appearance, nor your personality, nor your approach to love can cause another person’s behavior, wants, or desires. Each of us is the genesis, the starting point, of such things.

You cannot make him either want or not want to pursue a relationship with you. That is all him. So, lean into your confidence. Put to rest the constant fretting and worrying what he will think and whether something you do might change it.

When you have bouts of self-doubt, dejection or gloom, stop and recognize those thoughts do not serve you. Realize that the thought is toxic, that you are hurting yourself with it.

Yes, tough shit very materially exists and it’s hard to get through, be it a breakup, death of a loved one, or other hurdle to overcome. And yes, you must allow yourself to process and grow through the grief, sadness, and/or frustration—to feel all the feels, dammit! But do, too, allow yourself to move forward and toward positivity, contentment. At the very least, do not wallow in the self-deprecating thoughts that might arise. Practice identifying and stopping them in their tracks. The more often you do, the less often you’ll find them popping up in your mind.

This goes beyond love. When you feel insecure, inadequate, as if you don’t belong, or unworthy of being in a certain space, that is a distorted way of perceiving reality. -Isms are alive and well, however, and I am no one to gaslight very real perceptions of certain situations. But, if those are not manifestly at play, be kind to yourself and do not authorize that the biggest doubter of your capabilities, of your brilliance, in the room be you.

This goes beyond love but, to be frank, the realization was born out of an ugly encounter with love. My last partner broke my heart. I said “I love you” first. God, I felt dumb. More than dumb, I felt dumbstruck and weak. I called my dad in tears. He hugged me over the phone and told me not to regret having said it, because that’s how I felt at that moment. My best friend said that I had shown such emotional growth in putting words to my feelings and feeling secure enough to utter them. I hated hearing it. I told myself I would never say those damn words first to anyone ever again.

I am an abolitionist and throw my weight behind open borders but damn it, after that interchange I built a wall. I built it reactively, an angry attempt to salvage my cool. Or rather, my ‘cool girl,’ nonchalant rap. A rap that protects us in this heart-rending and distressing world. Perhaps if we pretend not to care, the wrongs of the world will not hurt as much, and the wrongs of our personal lives will never even come close.

And then I learned—everyday I am still learning—through literature penned by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and bell hooks, as much as through my friendships where we pour into each other and just want to see each other succeed, that it does us better to love than to not. To care than to detach. It is the lifeline and saving grace onto which we must latch. Don’t you feel like your skin is more receptive to the sun’s rays when you gaze at your emotions in the mirror rather than brush them under the rug? When you speak honestly and openly and open the valve on your love? Are the recipients’ arms not open? That speaks, then, to their self and their emotions, rather than insinuate that you are in any way broken.

My mother, a strong, border-crossing woman of color, taught me to be indestructible, impersonal and rugged, because she believed that to be the only way to survive in a world that has never stopped trying to eat her alive. Her daughter, privileged-with-citizenship, able-bodied, and bearing many other differences, to be sure, is doing her damndest to stay open in this minefield of human interaction we call society; to be her own gentle, soft, vulnerable creation; to preserve and grow the energy given to her in the womb and bloom, bloom, bloom. Hell yes, her daughter gets angry with the world, for some of the same reasons her mother does; some different, too. On the road toward building community and safeguarding justice, there is many a fight to be had. The one her daughter has chosen to stop sending troops to, however, is the innermost, wherein she holds back, doubts, belittles, and shrinks herself. Love is a revolutionary act. Harness it and gift both yourself and your neighbor a cup. After all, in Lorraine Avila’s words, “malcriadas can love the world awake.” Matatanas, too.

No matter how low your confidence may at times dip, never forget, and not for lack of better words because these are quite honestly the best: you are the shit.

Ayling Zulema Dominguez is from the Bronx, NY, a daughter of immigrants whose advocacy and work explores positions between three cultures: Dominican, Mexican, and that of the US.